Northern Ireland The Troubles Falls Road Belfast British Soldiers

Government Rules Out Amnesty For Soldiers Who Served In Northern Ireland

The Government has ruled out any possibility of immunity from prosecution for British troops who served in Northern Ireland as they formally...

Northern Ireland The Troubles Falls Road Belfast British Soldiers

Picture: Troops on duty beside barbed wire barriers in the Falls Road area of Belfast, 1969. Courtesy of PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The Government has ruled out any possibility of immunity from prosecution for British troops who served in Northern Ireland as they formally unveil a long-delayed consultation on proposals to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

The four-month public consultation will seek to canvass views on a series of new mechanisms to investigate, document and uncover the truth around killings during the 30-year conflict.

It comes amid a political row over the exclusion of protections for ex-service personnel.

In the full consultation document, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley says:

“We also continue to believe that any approach to the past must be fully consistent with the rule of law.

"Conservatives in government have consistently said that we will not introduce amnesties or immunities from prosecution.”

This appears to go against what Theresa May said in Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

In response to a question from Chair of the Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis, the Prime Minister said that the system for investigating The Troubles in Northern Ireland was "unfair".

While Theresa May did not publicly back calls for an amnesty, her comments sparked controversy as she claimed that, as things stand in Northern Ireland, the only people currently being investigated over Troubles incidents were former security force members.

That claim appeared to run contrary to figures published by the police and prosecutors in Northern Ireland last year.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) statistics indicate more of its legacy resources are deployed investigating paramilitaries, while a breakdown of cases taken by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) in recent years shows more have been pursued against republican and loyalists than security force personnel.

Late last year, ministers had suggested a statute of limitations protecting security force members from historic prosecutions may be added to the consultation document.

The prospect of such a move was met by a wave of opposition in Northern Ireland.

Both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists voiced concern, as did the Irish Government and representatives of the victim's sector.

The DUP and some military veterans in Northern Ireland made the point that any such statute would, by law, have to be extended to also cover former paramilitaries - something they branded unacceptable.

Senior DUP figures favour protections for ex-service personnel as part of wider legislation that focuses on all conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the decision to remove the contentious proposal from the consultation was therefore widely expected in Northern Ireland, it has nonetheless generated opposition both within the Cabinet and on the Conservative backbenches.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is understood to be among ministers unhappy at the prospect of veteran servicemen being prosecuted.

Tory backbenchers criticised the Government's failure to include a statute of limitations on security force prosecutions in the legacy consultation.

Over recent years, the concept of an amnesty has gained traction among a number of Westminster backbenchers, who claim that recent prosecutions of former British soldiers are tantamount to a "witch-hunt".

The document is based on a blueprint agreed by the Stormont parties and UK and Irish Governments in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The implementation of the agreed mechanisms, which include a new independent investigation unit and a truth recovery body, has been delayed amid ongoing political discord in Northern Ireland.

The consultation is a bid to inject some momentum into efforts to making those new bodies a reality, but it has become embroiled in controversy over what is not included in the document, rather than what is.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley insisted on Friday that the new mechanisms would be "balanced, proportionate, transparent, fair and equitable"."I welcome the opportunity to launch the consultation today, seeking views on how to address the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past,"

She said:

"Since my appointment as Secretary of State, I have heard deeply moving stories about the suffering that victims and survivors have lived with for decades and the profound and lasting impact on individuals, families and communities.

"This consultation provides the opportunity to begin a process that has the potential to provide better outcomes for victims, survivors and their families. There is broad agreement that the current complex system does not work well for anyone and we are determined to put that right.

"In an area as sensitive as the troubled past in Northern Ireland, it is important that we recognise and listen to all views. Any way forward will only work if it can command confidence from across the community.

"Now is the time for everyone with an interest in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland's troubled past to have their say."

The consultation will close on September 10.